There are so many ways for the dream to die. Money problems. The wrong message. A nervous tic on the stump. A candidate can flub a question about family or render the name of a foreign terrorist group into a chickpea dip. Or maybe it’s five bad minutes on the Saturday night before the Super Bowl, when a cool young Senator suddenly freezes up like a wintry New England lake.
Through the first seven debates, Florida Senator Marco Rubio had been confident, eloquent and knowledgeable. But in the eighth he faced a telegraphed attack from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie that his life accomplishment amounted to little more than memorizing sound bites. Rubio’s response was to repeat a memorized sound bite, four excruciating times.
And the damage was done. In a matter of hours, the “Marcomentum” from Rubio’s surprisingly strong third-place finish in Iowa vanished. The soaring oratory once seen as a strength was reduced to onionskin script, easily punctured by a tough-talking Jersey son. Democratic operatives began showing up outside Rubio’s campaign stops dressed as robots, wearing cardboard boxes scrawled with messages like Rubio talking point 3000.
Rubio arrived at what was supposed to be his New Hampshire victory party on his way to a fifth-place finish, his campaign’s future suddenly in doubt. “Our disappointment tonight is not on you. It’s on me,” he said. “I did not do well on Saturday night. So listen to this: That will never happen again.”
Oh, but it will, though maybe not to Rubio. David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s former message maven, likes to say that a run for the White House is an MRI of the soul. But the metaphor doesn’t quite capture the cruelty and caprice of the process, which probes so many other parts of your character and constitution. And no state does humbling quite like New Hampshire. The first-in-the-nation primary has a reputation as a place of straight talk and comeback kids. But it’s also the site of Edmund Muskie’s tears and George Herbert Walker Bush’s scare at the hands of Patrick Buchanan. It slowed Barack Obama down in 2008 just as it slowed down Hillary Clinton in 2016. “This is a process that puts candidates through tests,” says David Kochel, a senior adviser to Jeb Bush, who barely survived his.
No one escaped New Hampshire intact this year; instead, everyone limped away, bearing scars. For months, Donald Trump campaigned here on the belief that his celebrity could overcome the state’s peculiar rule book. He spent more on baseball hats than voter lists and repaired nearly every night to his penthouse overlooking Central Park. “He’s broken every rule in the Republican political game,” says Dane Maxwell, Trump’s Mississippi state director, who flew in to knock on doors for Trump. “I don’t think it’ll ever be the same.”
But Trump learned the rule book exists for a reason. After collapsing in Iowa, his campaign finally ditched the lectern for intimate town halls, organized phone banks and cobbled together teams of volunteers and staff to walk neighborhoods in the shimmering snow. On election night, he bounded onstage to the strains of the Beatles’ “Revolution” but spent his speech paying homage to his family and thanking everyone from his New Hampshire volunteers to the Republican Party chairman. “We learned a lot about ground games in one week,” Trump suggested. Not quite the picture of humility. His own performances are still a strange confection of boasts and platitudes. But the campaign has a long way to go.
Armed with his family’s organizational muscle and political Rolodex, Bush began his campaign with a promise to take nothing for granted and to “do this on my own.” Nothing seemed to work. “Please clap,” the favorite son pleaded at one town hall, after his speech was met by silence. After months of railing against the name-calling antics of Trump, Bush caved to the ugly currency of the modern media age. “You aren’t just a loser, you are a liar and a whiner,” Bush tweeted at the eventual winner.
In the end, Bush transformed his solo act into the same old family drama, trotting out his 90-year-old mother to campaign in the snow and making plans to unleash his older brother in South Carolina. It bought him a fourth-place finish–a hair behind Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who invested just a fraction of the time and money Bush spent in the state. “This campaign is not dead!” Bush declared to supporters in Manchester, N.H., in his election-night address, though many of his donors wondered if the opposite was true.
Fresh off a victory in the Iowa caucuses, Cruz was the candidate with the least to lose. He had spent months quoting Scripture, casting himself as a pious purist among grubby D.C. dealmakers. “Our approach from the beginning has been to take the high road,” he told reporters on the eve of the New Hampshire primary. But caucus night in Iowa–when Cruz allies tried to siphon votes from Ben Carson by suggesting that the neurosurgeon was on the verge of dropping out–had unmasked Cruz as a practitioner of dark political arts. The secular Granite State proved a poor fit for Cruz, who never quite pivoted from Exodus to eminent domain. Looking ahead to the Southern states that dominate Super Tuesday, opponents pointed to Cruz’s past failure to tithe as evidence that he was merely posing as an evangelical.
Carson’s own reckoning was complete long before Cruz’s smear job had done its work. A reluctant candidate pushed into the race by the conservative movement’s marketing wizards, Carson had a fleeting turn as GOP front runner during the fall. But when terrorists struck Paris and then San Bernardino, Calif., his tenuous grasp on foreign affairs brought the curtain down. So did his way of pronouncing the name of the terrorist group Hamas like that of the appetizer hummus. And while he seems intent on sticking with his quixotic calling, his campaign is effectively over.
The same can be said for Chris Christie, who made a huge bet on New Hampshire, grinding the town-hall circuit just as voters in the state expect. “We get to know them, we ask hard questions, and we remind them that they are interviewing to be hired to work for us,” says Steve Duprey, a Republican National Committeeman from New Hampshire. A skilled and dogged retail performer, Christie answered every question but never came close to landing the gig, burdened by a mixed record in his home state and the ongoing criminal prosecutions of his appointees.
He finished in sixth place, with just 7% of the vote, and dropped out of the race on Feb. 10. (Christie was followed out the door by Carly Fiorina, the sole Republican woman in the field, who never gained traction in the party’s nominating contest.) In the end, a man conservatives begged to run for President in 2012 may be best remembered for his murder-suicide mission against Rubio.
The lone exception to this brutal winnowing might seem to be Ohio Governor John Kasich, but even he faces a steeper climb now. Sensing space in a campaign of seething resentments for a self-styled “prince of light and hope,” he held 106 town halls while dancing to pop music and preaching sunny optimism. Kasich, long known to Ohioans as a tough customer, somehow refashioned himself as a soulful king of compassion, laying out plans to lift voters out of poverty and reform the mental-health system. In a debate marked by knife fighting, Kasich made the case for slowing down and helping neighbors. His rivals called him corny. “It’s better than razor blades to gargle with,” Kasich responded.
The reinvention worked, at least for a moment. The Ohioan grabbed 16% of the vote, good for second place. “Tonight the light overcame the darkness,” he told cameras before heading to South Carolina, aboard a new campaign plane that had to jettison staffers to bear the weight of a ballooning press pack. “Maybe we are turning the page on a dark part of American politics.” Maybe, but Kasich has little cash and a skimpy national organization, and the conservative Southern states looming on the campaign calendar aren’t the kind that cotton to a Republican who backs Medicaid expansion and talks about reforming prisoners.
Up next is South Carolina, where character assassination is considered a political art form. It was in the Palmetto State that allies of George W. Bush launched a whisper campaign in 2000 that claimed Senator John McCain’s adopted daughter from Bangladesh was his illegitimate black child. Now they are ready to skewer Rubio as a callow freshman who isn’t up to the job. Other grudge matches are inevitable. “Cruz and Trump are going to go at it, and only one of them is going to survive,” predicts one Republican strategist.
But the outcome is unlikely to be clear-cut. Instead of producing a winner, the first two states produced a long string of wounded warriors, all of whom are girding for a long campaign.
Which leaves Rubio plenty of time for a resurrection, if he can face the next onslaught of challenges. On the morning after his New Hampshire humbling, the Senator stood in the center aisle of his campaign plane as it flew to South Carolina, calmly replaying his debate fumble with reporters by recalling his college exploits on the football field. “I can’t keep thinking about the touchdown I gave up,” he said. Reporters had another metaphor in mind, however, with one comparing Rubio’s tussle with Christie to a particularly grisly scene from the Hollywood flick The Revenant, in which a frontiersman played by Leonardo DiCaprio is mauled by a hungry grizzly.
“I didn’t see that movie,” Rubio said. “Who won? The bear?”
–With reporting by TESSA BERENSON/GREENVILLE, S.C.
This appears in the February 22, 2016 issue of TIME.